There is nowadays a mind-boggling level of adulteration in edible items, notably milk and spices, making it virtually impossible for the skeletal Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) to stamp it out. A snapshot national survey by the Centre for Science and Environment last year, found that 70 per cent of the milk samples were substandard. ‘Sub-standard’ has become a way of life, and has, fittingly, acquired a definition in the Food Safety and Standards Act.
This act is a fine improvement on its predecessor, Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, and, as elsewhere in the country, governs all action by the FDA in Maharashtra. Now, we have a legal lexicon for concepts such as "unsafe" food and "substandard" food, apart from break-up of terms like "contaminants". The act spells out stiffer penalties going up to Rs10 lakh for different violations such as misbranding, unhygienic processing, etc.
As against prevention, the new act raises the ante on safety. If punishment was the limited objective previously, now there is an insistence on better practices across the food chain. It covers even distribution of food on a bicycle.
While all this sounds sufficiently empowering, there are multiple hiccups in the adulteration story. First, the new act has added to the FDA’s workload, apart from opening up new avenues for corruption. It came into force on August 5, 2011, but there are still many parts of the act that food safety officers (called food inspectors earlier) are not fully conversant with. This leads to snafus at various levels of action.
Second, FDA is perennially short of staff. For the last 35 years during which the state’s population has more than doubled, the sanctioned strength of food inspectors has remained stagnant at about 250. Coupled with the lightning growth in the packaged food industry and the number of eateries, this inadequacy is stunting.
The degree of corruption within the FDA queers its stated pitch. When food inspectors do pick a random packaged sample past its expiry date from a shop, all is forgiven after five minutes of negotiations. The few seizures of chocolates or packaged drinking water, generally do not lead to prosecution. And when they do, the FDA’s record of conviction leaves a lot to be desired. Many cases peter out in court, thanks to weak representation by government lawyers, procedural or legal infirmities.
For instance, in some pockets of the state such as Ahmednagar and Sangli, it is the dairies rather than the delivery boys or distribution agencies that are believed to also contaminate milk. It may be a coincidence that many of these dairies are owned by
politicians, mostly MLAs. The FDA has summoned the courage to act against them on rare occasions, but those in the know say cases have fallen by the wayside in prosecution.
The best way to stay safe this Diwali would be to stay informed, keep vigil ourselves and follow up a complaint on any faulty product. The government’s occasional demonstration of concern should not make up for our lack of it.